Memories of a father who drank

Alcohol: Life at home was dominated by anger, argument, tears and shame.

April 01, 2001|By Mary Geer

THE SNAPSHOT shows my father, seated at the head of the dining room table, flanked by two small, beaming granddaughters. The photo, taken in the mid-1960s, is in color, but my father's image is gray. His long-sleeved, gray shirt accentuates his bony shoulders, skinny arms, and barrel chest. His ashen face is punctuated with red, wet lips, which are parted slightly, and by empty eyes looking straight at the camera. My father is drunk at yet another family celebration.

When I was growing up in the two decades before that photo was taken, the open, acknowledged liquor supply in our house was on the top shelf of one of the kitchen cabinets, above the shelf that held the flour, shortening, and baking powder. I understood that it was off limits to me, but I remember looking up at the different shapes and colors of the bottles.

Separate from the kitchen liquor cabinet was my father's secret supply of expensive bourbon hidden elsewhere --the basement, garage, trunk of his car. I remember lifting the seat of a built-in bench in our breakfast room and finding a liquor bottle nestled in with the life preservers for our boat.

The overt and covert liquor supplies symbolize the dual realities of my life growing up in an alcoholic family. In our Ohio town, we were a respected family -- businessman father, civic leader mother, two high-achieving children.

My college-educated parents very much loved both my older brother and me. They sometimes pretended to be put-upon by their parenting duties, but in fact took much pleasure in spring vacation trips to Washington and New York, and in hauling me and my high school friends to out-of-town football games.

They also were socially active, attending and giving parties at home and at the local country club. I don't remember seeing or hearing about any public displays of drunkenness on my father's part. His alcoholism, however, dominated our life at home.

On most evenings, my father came home from work and poured himself a drink in the kitchen. He and my mother got dinner ready together, and as the liquor took effect, he became argumentative and sarcastic.

I stayed away from the kitchen in the hour before dinner, applying myself to homework in my room and listening for the sounds of arguing downstairs. Dinner itself was tense; I never knew if my father was going to "blow up," as we called it.

Some nights he made a snide remark about my mother's cooking. Her fresh peach or apple pies, which everyone else in the family would kill for, were one of his favorite targets. He would say, "Bottom crust's not done," and she would answer, through her tears, "I try and try, but I just can't please you," and withdraw to their bedroom.

Other nights my father launched into one of his diatribes, such as the one against the "goddamn New Dealers." The diatribes were strings of negative pronouncements, which he sometimes drove home by slamming his fist on the table.

I would excuse myself as soon as I could, pleading the demands of reading for English class or a test the next day. My father would pass out in his easy chair in the living room. My mother was left to wash the dishes alone.

Although they were never directed at me, my father's blowups left me with -- as my mother would have called it -- a "knot in my stomach."

I was ashamed of his behavior, and I was furious with him if he made my mother cry. Although I was aware from certain clues, such as a closed master bedroom door in the middle of the afternoon, that my parents made up after their quarrels, in my eyes he was always the one to blame.

As a teen-ager, it was clear to me that my father's drinking caused the things I disliked about him -- his coarse humor, infrequent baths, and failure to earn as much money as some of my friends' fathers. He was a loser because he drank.

My mother would ask, "Why can't you even be nice to your father?" Once, when I had been curt with him, my father said, "You don't like me very much, do you?"

I never had an answer for either of them.

The truth, which I did not dare tell my parents and could barely admit myself, was that I wanted to punish my father for his drinking and being a loser. And I did not like him.

My mother and I talked about his drinking. It never occurred to me to utter the word "alcoholic," nor do I remember anyone else in the family saying the shameful word.

I would ask what could be done about my father's drinking, but there never seemed to be an answer. Alcohol rehabilitation programs had not yet been invented. We had heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but we assumed that it was populated by skid-row bums and, therefore, was not the place for my hard-working father.

My mother would end the conversation by listing my father's good qualities and saying: "Well, I would rather have him drink at home where he is safe than in a bar on North Main Street."

Possibly because of the social stigma of alcoholism -- considered to be a moral failure rather than an illness -- I don't remember ever encountering the notion that I could lament my father's behavior and still affirm him as a person.

In the late 1960s, my father suffered a series of small strokes, after which he no longer drank. He never mentioned his drinking or his illness, and no one else in the family did either.

Always reticent, he withdrew farther into himself. Instead of swearing when one of his beloved Cleveland Browns made a mistake, he now turned the game on but was dozing by the second quarter.

His world, which had never been large, shrank to the point where it consisted of his five grandchildren. The family celebrations continued, but although the pale man at the head of the table still looked sad, at least he was no longer drunk.

Mary Geer is a part-time graduate student in the writing program at the Johns Hopkins University. She is concentrating on nonfiction.

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